Garry BrewerFree Press History Columnist

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March 29, 2013
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GJ HISTORY: The tales of Uncle Billy Hildreth - Mesa County's very own 'Little Big Man'

For those of you who have never seen the 1970 movie "Little Big Man" starring Dustin Hoffman, it's about a 121-year-old man living in a rest home and telling his life story about being a captive of the Cheyenne, a gunslinger, a friend of Wild Bill Hickok, a storekeeper, a scout for General Custer, and losing a wife and family.Living in Grand Junction in 1923, there was a man with tales to tell like the movie. His name was Uncle Billy Hildreth, and this is his story.THE TALE BEGINSIt started on March 31,1923, in Grand Junction, Colo., when Alfred B. "Uncle Billy" Hildreth had his 100th Birthday Party at the Oxford Hotel at the northwest corner of Second and Colorado Ave. in Grand Junction (now the parking lot of Two Rivers Convention Center); the party then moved on to the Grand Junction Elks Club on the corner of Fourth and Ute. The local Elks Club gave Uncle Billy a huge party as the oldest Elk in the world. Uncle Billy claimed to have known Abe Lincoln while living in Illinois, before Abe became president. Billy said of Lincoln: "He was the homeliest, ganglingest, most awkward man I have ever seen," but he also thought "Lincoln was one of the smartest men he ever met."Uncle Billy said he was born in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, on March 31, 1823. He also stated he came to Denver with a team of oxen in 1858, when it was a colony of three tents surrounded by Indians. He claimed that during his life he scouted with Buffalo Bill, Kit Carson, Jim Baker and other famous Western heroes. A different account said he came to Estes Park by wagon train in 1859, with a man named Speers. Then in the same year, returned to Santa Fe, by pony, through country thickly settled by hostile Indians the same year.His best tale was of scouting for Gen. Custer and being within two miles of Little Big Horn in 1876, and one hour after the last shot was fired, he had gone among the victims of the famous Custer massacre. He said he had been in the Civil War, serving on the Union side, and wounded at Shiloh, he was an Indian Scout with General Oliver Howard, and helped stem the tide of the Nez Perce Indians through the Yellowstone Park Area in 1877. He also had familiarity with the development of the whole Rocky Mountains and plains region.Uncle Billy's stories were always interesting, and he would share them to all that would listen. He didn't sit by on the sidelines and watch other men do things, but was an actor on life's stage. Billy said when he was born in 1823; Napoleon died two years before his birth; he was 14 when Queen Victoria began her reign; and was 21 when the telegraph and telephone was invented; and Karl Marx, the German Socialist was just five years older than him. He said he never got ill because he smoked half a dozen to 20 strong cigars each day and took a daily portion of whiskey, which always kept him in good trim.Billy was an active member the local Grand Army of the Republic, John A. Logan Post 21, and loved to walk in all the Grand Junction parades.About five months after his 100th Birthday on August 1, 1923, Uncle Billy died in the hospital in Ouray, Colo., while visiting his adopted daughter, Mrs. Edna Corn. Billy had taken ill 10 days earlier from a combination of all his diseases. According to the records of the local G.A.R. Post, his next of kin was his daughter, Alice Hildreth Outland of Iowa, and granddaughter Gertrude Reed of Denver. Sgt. Alfred B. Hildreth of Company C, 41st Illinois Infantry, was buried in the Rawlins, Wyo., cemetery by his comrades and according to his wishes.SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHTA man of such interesting stories needs a second look at his life; more than what he told the newspaper, the Elks, the local Civil War Post and the citizens of Mesa County.Thus starts our review of documented facts of this 5'9", hazel-eyed, 100-year-old soldier, scout, pathfinder and trailblazer of the West, who looked out on the face of the new American frontier.Alfred Blaine Hildreth was born in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, on March 31, 1830, the son of Arnold W. Hildreth and Mary Beardsley. By 1850, 19-year-old Alfred was living in his parents' home in Miller, Knox County, Ohio, learning his life trade as a carpenter. On Jan. 19, 1857, he married Matilda "Mattie" Rose Rowley in Mahaska, Iowa; they had two children, a daughter, Alice V. born in 1857 in Iowa, and a son, William "Willie" A. Hildreth born March 7, 1862, in Clinton, Ill.When the Civil War broke out, Alfred with other men from Clinton answered the call to serve in the Union and joined Company C, 41st Illinois Infantry on May 8, 1861. During his time in the service he saw some of the worst battles of the western campaigns of the Civil War. He was present at Fort Donelson and the Battle of Shiloh, or as he called it, "Pittsburg Landing." There he was wounded, shot in the right shoulder and arm.In the first day of fighting at the "Hornets Nest" his unit helped keep the Confederates from the Union gunboats on the Tennessee River. After the battle they moved on to Corinth, Oxford and Vicksburg, Miss., where the 41st Illinois marched across Tennessee to Marietta, Ga. For a short time, Billy was on detached service in the Pioneer Corps (Seabee's of the Civil War) at La Grange, and Grand Junction, Tenn. These soldiers built roads and bridges for Army units. They also tore up railroads and telegraph lines to stop the Confederates from moving men and supplies.Sgt. Alfred B. Hildreth was honorably discharged on Aug. 20, 1864; his regiment the 41st Illinois had seen many causalities of the war and was merged with the 53rd Illinois to form one regiment. Alfred returned to his wife, Mattie, daughter Alice and new son Willie at Clinton, Ill., where the family lived until 1870. For some reason in 1874, Alfred moved out West without his family. According to Alfred's Civil War pension record, he moved to Rawlins, Wyo., in 1874, and then on to the Black Hills of Dakota in 1877. The following year he was in Montana working as a gold miner, carpenter and clerking in stores. He returned to Chicago and lived in a boarding house from 1879 to 1880 where he did carpentry work. At this time he and Mattie divorced. Mattie and son Willie were still living in Clinton, Ill., and daughter Alice was married by then and living in Iowa with her husband, Joel Outland.By 1881, Alfred is now becoming known as Uncle Billy and he moved back to Rawlins, where he homesteaded a section of land that used to be an old military outpost. Billy received the patent from President Glover Cleveland in 1895.Later, Billy sold his land to the Hamilton family. Here Uncle Billy was hurt helping the Hamiltons clear trees in the Ferris Mountains of Wyoming. A falling tree hit him in the head and body.In 1882, Billy went to the Bear River area in Colorado for two years to recover from his injuries. He then went back to Rawlins. There he was a member of the C.W. Collins, Post 58 of the G.A.R. Uncle Billy might have first come to Grand Junction, Colo., for a Department of CO/WY meeting on May 13, 1910. Over 800 Union veterans of Colorado /Wyoming attended during this week-long meeting.Uncle Billy remained in Rawlins until 1913 when he got sick and was taken to The Old Soldier's Home in Sawelle, Calif. There Billy probably met many Union veterans from Grand Junction. Billy's stay in the hospital was from 1913 to 1915, and then he was released to return home to Wyoming.We know, from his records, he was in Rawlins in 1918 and then appears in the Grand Junction records of the local G.A.R. John A. Logan Post 21 in December 1920. In Grand Junction, he kept a room at the Oxford Hotel and his pension checks were sent to the GJ post office. The post office and Elks Lodge, where he was a member, were just a few blocks away from the hotel and within walking distance for Uncle Billy. Sometime during his time here in GJ he stumbled and fell and was hit by a truck. But this durable soul survived his brush with death.It seems ironic that he lived in the Oxford Hotel - Oxford and Grand Junction being two places in Tennessee and Mississippi where he fought in the Civil War. Living here must have brought memories of the battles of his youth.Uncle Billy liked to winter in GJ and go to Ouray in the summer to visit his friends, Mr. and Mrs. Graves Corn, whom he met in Grand Junction. They had moved to Ouray and opened their home to him for visits.During his time here in GJ, Uncle Billy took the town by storm with his great stories, marching in parades, and his activities in the G.A.R. Post and the Elks Lodge. He told everyone he was going to be 100 years old on March 31 1923. Frank Dean took his photo and the Elks gave him a huge party, which he loved. However, all of Billy's records - his military and pension records, medical records, records from the Old Soldier's Home and Census records from 1840 to 1920 show his birth year was 1830. Therefore, Uncle Billy was only 93 years old.But who cares? Uncle Billy wanted to be 100 years old and have a big celebration. Well, he got his wish, his picture was in the paper, a big party was given in his honor and everybody showed up! We should all be so lucky!While some of his tales may be a little far-fetched, his real life was full and fascinating. The actual facts were as exciting as the tales he told to all who would listen. Quoting the aged Indian "Old Lodge Skins" from the movie "Little Big Man" when he was waiting for death, "Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn't." Let's give Alfred "Uncle Billy" Hildreth a cigar and a shot of whiskey, because he made the magic work for him and we all believed.------------------Garry Brewer is storyteller of the tribe; finder of odd knowledge and uninteresting items; a bore to his grandchildren; a pain to his wife on spelling; but a locator of golden nuggets, truths and pearls of wisdom. Email Garry at brewer62@bresnan.net.============SOURCES & PHOTOS: Museum of Western Colorado, Loyd Files Room; Michael Menard; Bill & Linda Buvinger; Wanda Allen; Snap Photo; Grand Junction News records; Daily Sentinel records; Grand Army of the Republic, John A. Logan Post 21; C.W. Collins Post 58, Department of CO/WY; Pension Records of Sgt. Alfred B. Hildreth; Lodge No. 575 Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks book "Our First Fifty Years, 1900 to 1950"; Dennis M. Edelin, chief, Forms Reference Section, Archival Operations - Washington, D.C.; Frank Dean photo; Iowa State Marriage Records, 1834 to 1900.


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The Post Independent Updated Mar 29, 2013 07:05PM Published Mar 29, 2013 07:03PM Copyright 2013 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.